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It's finally feeling like winter again (w/video)

Eric Sturtevant looks over the slide on Ft. Ross Road near Cazadero on Saturday.

John Burgess / The Press Democrat
Published: Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 1:52 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 8, 2014 at 8:39 p.m.

A drenching rain that finally made it feel like honest-to-goodness winter dumped more than half a foot of rain Saturday on the wettest areas of northwest Sonoma County, prompting flooding of low-lying roadways and raising Russian River flows to near seasonal levels at last.

The moisture-laden storm toppled trees around the county and washed out a section of Fort Ross Road near Cazadero, causing a chunk of hillside to slide 200 feet or more downhill and closing the road for what will likely be months, fire officials said.

But the rain, overall, was a welcome reminder of wet winters past and raised hopes for continuing precipitation before spring arrives.

Just overnight, an additional surge was expected to drop up to several more inches of rain, prompting another flash-flood warning in effect until Sunday afternoon, the National Weather Service said. Two more rainstorms are on the horizon later this week.

The staff at the Sonoma County Water Agency cautioned, however, against the temptation to forget the region is still well-behind season normal and water-poor in the grand scheme of things.

“It's a good soaking, but we need a lot more,” water agency spokesman Brad Sherwood said. “It's not a drought buster.”

The 3.34 inches of rain recorded for Santa Rosa for the 24 hours from 4 p.m. Friday to 4 p.m. Saturday amounted to nearly half of what's fallen to date this season — 7.64 inches.

That's only a third of the 23.43 inches that's considered seasonal average by this date, said Bob Benjamin, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

It would take another 6 inches to 7 inches just to reach rainfall totals from 1977, “the worst drought year we remember,” water agency representative Ann DuBay said.

“We're just reminding people, once again, that even though this rain is terrific, and we are thrilled to see it, that we are still in a drought,” DuBay said. “It's going to take a lot more rain before we can even get to a normal water year, so we are just encouraging people to continue to conserve.”

Cazadero resident Eric Sturtevant may be a hard-sell, however. Sturtevant emptied his rain gauge Feb. 1 and by Saturday had collected more than 17 inches of rainfall, he said.

“Back in the 70s, we used to get rain really hard like this, but this is most extreme,” he said. “It's huge.”

Most of Sonoma County had 24-hour totals were in the 2-inch to 4-inch range, while Sebastopol came in with 5.95 inches, Sonoma had 6.5 inches, and Guerneville had 6.

Cazadero's official rainfall total was 8.76 inches by 4 p.m. Saturday, but around the hills, some folks with gauges reported upwards of 12 to 14 inches, Fort Ross Fire Chief Paul Ginesi said.

Readings from Lakes Sonoma and Mendocino that would reflect the most recent influx of rain were not available before midnight Saturday, and the levels were expected to rise for several days before the full measure of the storm was clear, water agency personnel said.

But already, gauges on the Russian River demonstrated significantly swelling - the flow rate at the Hacienda Bridge, for instance, rising from just more than 500 cubic feet per second at midnight to 4,410 cfs by 7:15 p.m. Saturday.

There were also signs that steelhead waiting downstream for months to spawn were finally moving upstream and, likely, coho salmon, as well, DuBay said. The flow has been so low that the Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday voted to close it anglers through April 30, though the closure doesn't take effect for another two weeks or so.

Saturday's rain fell heaviest during the morning, inundating local waterways and raising levels so fast the weather service issued a flash-flood warning for much of Sonoma County.

The alert sent fire personnel to scout traditional problem areas around the west and south county areas, but they more often found surface flooding related to clogged drainage and culverts than streams overflowing their banks.

Surface flooding temporarily closed several roads that are usually the first to go under in heavy rain: Highway 1 at Valley Ford Road; Green Valley Road at Ross Road, and Graton Road, in Graton; Skylane at Aviation Boulevard in north Santa Rosa; Stony Point Road at Rohnert Park Expressway, and Scenic and Langner avenues near Rohnert Park; and Highway 12 and 121 south of Sonoma, among them.

A plugged culvert is believed the likely reason that water was sheeting so heavily across Fort Ross Road that the road finally gave way around 11 a.m., Fort Ross Fire Chief Ginesi said.

The slipout inundated a pickup parked well downhill and sent so much material toward the owner's home that firefighters persuaded the resident to evacuate, he said.

The house “is not jeopardized now, but if things change, it could be,” Ginesi said.

“Oh my gosh, it really looked scary,” said Sturtevant, who drove down from his home nearby to take a look. “It took out a lot of earth as it went down. It took down some very large trees, as well.”

Fire personnel said several other trees that came down around the region similarly appeared to have been undermined by redirected drainage and erosion. Some just leaned over, Gold Ridge Fire Chief Dan George said.

But Ron Wallace, an arborist and partner in Sebastopol-based TreePro, said trees may already be weakened by structural defects or disease may simply give way when rain adds more weight to a tree limb than it can bear.

That appears to be what happened to a Monterey cypress in Bodega Bay that dropped a huge branch across the top of a detached garage unit on Bodega Avenue, crushing the structure, he said.

Sunday's forecast called for continued rain, heavy at times, diminishing at mid-day, though there remained room for another flash-flood warning, said Duane Dykema, with the National Weather Service.

Another storm, perhaps not as strong, was expected to come through late Wednesday and Thursday, with yet a third appearing likely next weekend, forecasters said.

Benjamin said it appeared an intense ridge of high pressure that had held steady over the region for months had diminished to more usual levels. Even if it rebuilds to some extent, it appears it will be less intense in the days to come and should let regular storms break through more readily, he said

“Hopefully,” Sherwood said, “it's just the beginning of a phenomenal February.”

(Staff Writer Lori A. Carter contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.)

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